How can you, an otherwise normal and intelligent person, believe this stuff?

4th Sunday of Easter (B)

Last month on Facebook I happened upon a lively conversation between my friend—a respected environmental activist—and his friends, on the relevance of religion in today’s world.

In his original post my friend made a proclamation of faith stating he would persist in his practice of Catholicism—which he strongly identifies with values of charity and justice—and partake in the sacraments as is his right, despite what he called the antithetical “contempt for the lives of their fellow humans” exhibited by certain Catholic Cardinals (i.e. the largely dismissed, but widely quoted Burke). If I could have “liked” his post a thousand times I would have.

I did not know my friend was religious, or Catholic for that matter. But what followed was a series of challenges to his (and my) belief system, some of which may have been driven by curiosity or a sincere desire to understand, but my sense was that most of the challengers’ questions were based on the logical conclusion that “it doesn’t take a creed or cross to understand the difference between right and wrong” (quote paraphrased from the conversation). This statement is a sad reminder to me that for many, the beauty and vibrancy of faith and religion is lost, and the grandeur of God, on which the poet and Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins muses (you may read the poem at the end of this post), that surrounds and saturates every waking hour and all of creation has been hijacked by moralists and functionalists.

My friend responded with the utmost kindness, patience and clarity to his readers’ questions such as whether religious institutions teach anything that cannot be found in the writings of great philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Hume. My friend provided personal experiences from his younger days and concluded that being educated in philosophy does not make one a moral being, impart a desire to care for others, increase empathy, or instill a love or reverence for other humans or creation.

Another reader opined that religion is the source of authoritarian power against poor, helpless masses. He challenged my friend to name one thing, other than religious doctrine, that a church can offer which cannot be found elsewhere. My friend pointed to the radical examples of faith from people like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Tom Berry and Paul Mayer, and questioned his friend’s premise that the presence of secular moral teachings that parallel those of Jesus indicate Christianity has run its course and is obsolete. He also noted that the actual cause of the world’s problems are money and power, both of which are capable of contaminating any institution including government, religion, education, media, and business. Of these, he said, “Christianity at least has values and beliefs around which one can build a life and community.”

Believers are frequently confronted with questions like these, which seem to ask “How can you, an otherwise normal and intelligent person, believe this stuff? It gets tiresome. But, in many cases, I think people really want to know what makes believers, believe. I have to admit, if I did not know God and was standing on the side of “I can be a good person without religion” I would have questions for my believing friends, too. It’s true.

But the purpose of religion is not to teach us how to live a “goal-filled life characterized by moral direction,” as one of my friend’s readers suggested. The purpose of religion is union with God; the act of religion is grounded in love of God, the creator, the higher power, or the “something greater” sensed by many people. Religion is God-centered, not self-improvement centered. Why do we do this? Because we want to know God, and when one has an experience of divine presence and abiding love (which by the way happens all the time if one is attentive), it’s pretty hard to understand how all people aren’t actively seeking the same.

At some point in life, maybe as a child, maybe as an adult, maybe at the point of death, believers come to see that regardless of our imperfections, God loves us with a radical love. And as author Cathleen Falsani writes in my new favorite book, “Disquiet Time,” “God loves me. Just as I am. (…) God fights for me. God pursues me. God never gives up on me. God never stops loving me.” (Grant and Falsani 2014)

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. —1 John 3:1b

This personal knowledge of God’s deep abiding love does not arrive by stork or magic or by lightning. People of all faith traditions have devoted their entire lives to the quest of knowing God. Spiritual practice is work; that is why it is called a practice. It requires conscious awareness, detachment and a decision to forego functionalist thinking, to follow that nagging “what if?” and traverse the jagged, unknown regions of life.

When we walk the earth with wonder and revere the miracle and dignity of every man, woman and child, every living creature, our planet and the universe, we make room for God and our hearts fill to the brim. It is entirely possible to become aware of God’s grace, God’s full-out mercy, and God’s limitless generosity. Here’s how: Remain open. You are beloved. Accept it like a soaking rain. This is the most profound statement of faith anyone can make. And the fact that one can deny it does not make it any less true. Sure, it is possible to be a good person without religion. And, let’s be honest. It’s damn hard to be good all the time. But religious people believe there is more to life than being good.

God’s Grandeur

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ: Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics, 1985)

Today’s readings can be found here.

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** Grant, Jennifer, and Cathleen Falsani, eds. 2014. Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels. Jericho Books. page 6.  You can find the book here

Reclaiming the primal sense of belonging

John O’Donohue, in his beautiful book, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on our Yearning to Belong, speaks of the “longing of the Earth.” He says, “The stillness of the stone is pure, but it also means that it can never move one inch (…) it enjoys absolute belonging.” Further, he writes “Think of your self and feel how you belong so deeply to the earth and how you are a tower of longing in which nature rises up and comes to voice.”

Yesterday, standing beneath the giant boulders of Joshua Tree National ForestI could not help but feel I was a part of this ancient labor sculpted by wind and time. I am a grain of sand, yet feel completely at home here.  O’Dononue says “Stone is the tabernacle of memory. Until we allow some of Nature’s stillness to reclaim us, we will remain victims of the instant and never enter the heritage of our ancient belonging.”

Time spent in untouched nature is wholly restorative. Tranquility returns. We become one with it, even if only for an instant. But in that moment clarity arrives, sweeping away all the clutter of the mind, shushing the mental chatter, slowing the breath perhaps even to the point where God’s whisper might be heard. Where ever it is in nature that your primal sense of belonging emerges, be it a forest, a mountaintop, the ocean, or a pristine lake, in the desert, or a canyon, go there and be reclaimed.

“You can give up all the candy you want and still be trapped in the old mind.” Richard Rohr, OFM

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM © Center for Action and Contemplation

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM © Center for Action and Contemplation

If you don’t know Richard Rohr, OFM, and have not read any of his books or articles, or have heard him speak, please stop what you are doing, click this link to learn about The Center for Action and Contemplation, which he founded, and at the very least, subscribe to his daily meditation so you too can be enriched on a daily basis by his fresh contemplative expressions of radical compassion. Each brief reflection is drawn from one of Rohr’s published works. I’m not exaggerating, people. Rohr simply nails it day after day. Today’s reflection on religious maturity is particularly poignant during Lent.  I am pasting it below as a way of introduction.

“People who are in early stage religion usually love the “two steps backward” quotes in the Bible. They seem to be drawn toward anything that’s punitive, shame-based, exclusionary of “wrong” people, or anything that justifies the status quo which just happens to be keeping them on top socially, economically, and religiously. They start by thinking that’s what religion is about–maintaining order and social control. God is sort of a glorified Miss Manners. They emphasize the Almighty, All-Powerful nature of God, who is made into the Great Policeman in the sky to keep us all under control (or at least everybody else under control!). Now you see how revolutionary God’s “new idea” is that was revealed in Jesus. Suddenly we have a God that is anything but a policeman, a God who finds grace in those who break the law, and finds life and freedom among the lepers and the sinners who do not have good manners. This is now an upside down universe, and I am sad to say most Christians have yet to participate in this Divine Revolution.

Mature religious people, that is, those who develop an actual inner life of prayer and outer life of service, tend to notice and imitate the “three steps forward” quotes in the Bible. First they change their life stance–and then they can be entrusted with the Bible. For all others who will not change their life position, the Bible is mere information and ammunition. It would be better if they did not read it! Only converted people, who are in union with both the pain of the world and the love of God, are prepared to read the Bible–with the right pair of eyes and the appropriate bias–which is from the side of powerlessness and suffering instead of the side of power and control. This is foundational and essential conversion, and it is the biblical characters themselves that first reveal this pattern, which then becomes obvious as you look around the world that we live in. The Greek word ineffectively translated as “repentance” in the Bible quite literally means “to change your mind” (metanoia), which is what this season of Lent is supposed to be about. It is not about giving up candy! You can give up all the candy you want and still be trapped in the old mind. You can give up no candy at all, but still allow yourself a total “revolution of the mind” (Ephesians 4:23). That is what Lent is about.

Adapted from Gospel Call for Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom)
in CAC Foundation Set (CD, MP3 download)

Truth seeking involves the willingness to change lanes with the powerless, not settle into the righteous rut of certitude. Let’s go for a ride.

The good seed. The good soil.

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

“The simple truth is that it all starts with the soil” says Will Allen, founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc., an urban farm and community food center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (www.growingpower.org). As one of the preeminent thinkers of our time on urban agriculture, vertical farming, and food policy, Allen’s organization actually produces the soil it uses. He continues, “without good soil, crops don’t get enough of the nutrients they need to survive and when plants are stressed, they are more prone to disease and pest problems.”

Parables are stories in which the meaning of one thing is explained with something else.  For Jesus, that something else would be an object familiar to certain members of his audience, but not to all: soil, seeds, yeast, pearls, treasure, fishing nets, and so on. The parable of the sower (MT 13:1-23) if read literally reveals both the plight of the farmer and its solution. Obviously, seed crops and yields were not Jesus’ focus, but to continue the soil metaphor it is worth noting that all seeds have within them the capacity for growth, but unless the soil is receptive, stress, disease and pests threaten to destroy what has been sown. The 4th century Theologian, Gregory Nyssa had a less nuanced explanation, “sin is the failure to grow.”

Presuming we all have ears and want to hear, there’s no better time than right now, in the height of the growing season to consider how we are at different times both the seed and the soil. The liturgical calendar also has returned us to ordinary time, which is represented by the color of nature, green. It is in ordinary time that we want the seeds of our faith to germinate. It is during this time that we cultivate the soil of our community garden.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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